As you walk along the upper loop of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Loop trail in August, you will notice a plant with strikingly odd berries. The berries are the reason the plant is called “Dolls Eyes.” The fruit (berries) bear a resemblance to porcelain eyes once used in dolls. They are white with a large black dot. The plant’s scientific name is Actaea pacypoda. The Greek root of the word “Pacy” stands for thick and “poda” for feet. The name derives from the fact that White Baneberry has a thick flower stalk and a thick, bushy flower.
Other names given to this interesting plant include White Cohosh, White-beads, Toadroot and White Baneberry. White Baneberry is in the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). It is one of debatably three species in the genus Actaea (Baneberry). The other two are Red Baneberry and Louis’s Baneberry. Louis’s is usually considered a subspecies of white baneberry. Red Baneberry produces a bright red fruit.
White Baneberry is a poisonous plant. Even the name “Baneberry” implies that the plant could be a problem for humans. It is most interesting to discover that it is listed on numerous internet sites as being a common medicinal. All parts of the plant are toxic. The berries are especially poisonous and large quantities can cause cardiac arrest or respiratory paralysis. Despite this fact, in times past it was used by several native American groups as medicine. Obviously, their traditional healers knew exactly how to prepare the plant so that it would heal but not hurt. To become a respected healer in Native American tribes took a lifetime of study and apprenticeship. I plan to leave White Baneberry to the birds and rodents who seem unharmed by them.
Birds can eat the berries with no ill effects. The Ruffed Grouse, a native of this area, enthusiastically does exactly that. Yellow bellied Sapsuckers and American Robins have also been seen eating the berries. However, it is not a major source of food for wildlife. Mice and Moles eat the berries also, but sometimes they just remove the pulp and only eat the tiny black seeds. If you notice that the berries are disappearing overnight, odds are the culprit is some type of nocturnal rodent, usually a mouse.
Interestingly, the beautiful white flowers do not have any nectar. They offer pollen to insects such as native bees of the Halictid species, wasps, and hornets, who collect the pollen to feed their larvae.
Dolls Eyes can be found growing amongst Blue and Black Cohosh along the upper loop of the trail. In the spring it can become very confusing trying to identify the three by their leaves alone. They look very similar. It becomes much easier to identify the plants when the flowers develop and bloom or when the fruit is present.
In August, the berries stand out. The white berries attached to a bright red flower stalk is unmistakable and one of the most striking plants to see this time of year.